IT HAPPENED TO ME: When I Was Five, My Father And Sister Drowned In An Apartment Complex Pool

My sister was crying. She wanted him to take us to the pool. Like mommy did. He couldn’t explain to his daughters that he didn’t know how to swim.
Publish date:
July 31, 2013
It Happened To Me, tragedy, teachers, deaths, childhood trauma

I asked the young paramedic if they would be OK. He couldn’t bear to tell me that they were already gone.

I am five and Kristin is three in the picture of us standing side-by-side wearing matching yellow bathing suits on our way to the neighborhood pool. We are both redheads. The daughters of two redheads, we look like The Weasley family from the "Harry Potter" series.

Our mother took us to the pool frequently that year. She had grown up in New York, and was happy to take advantage of the year-round sunshine Southern California offered. In the photograph, we are both wearing bright yellow “floaties.” Kristin’s toddler arms are so pudgy that small folds of skin balloon around the silly looking yellow armbands. Still, those armbands promised both fun and safety.

My mother married young, by today’s standards. She was 22 when she met my father, a 30-year-old interior designer/musician/artist who was her co-worker at a furniture store in Long Island, New York. My grandmother claimed that my mother came home and said, “I have met the man I am going to marry.”

I have few memories of my father and what I know of his personality I have pieced together from the archives of photos, artwork, and writings that he left behind. From these things I can infer that he was romantic, idealistic, liberal (he wrote a play in opposition to the Vietnam War), creative, and loving.

From the way he died, and the way he contributed to the death of my sister, I can also infer that he was reckless and irresponsible.

My family moved to Southern California in the early 1980s. My mother had family there, but my father had nobody. Several years after the move, my parents divorced. My mother, then 28, kept the two-bedroom apartment we all had shared, and my father moved to his own small apartment in a neighboring suburb. A visitation schedule was drawn up.

This is one of the documents I have in the archives, along with a letter my father wrote after the divorce: “I have known the love of a beautiful woman and two beautiful daughters. Those girls are everything to me. I would die without them.”

A young father, he was probably hindered by his inability to entertain a three-year-old and a five-year-old for an entire weekend. Those days, the world was less family-friendly and kid-centered. VCRs were new and expensive; there were no channels that played kids’ programming all day long. I don't recall there being toys in his apartment.

To make matters worse, it was hot, well into the 90s, which was rare for May. My sister was crying. She wanted him to take us to the pool. Like mommy did. He couldn’t explain to his daughters that he didn’t know how to swim. Had never even been in a swimming pool.

We didn’t have bathing suits at his place. We stripped down to our underwear and walked to the pool wrapped in giant towels. The pool was empty. No lifeguard, no neighbors. I got into the shallow end and started doing the practice kicks I had learned at the pool with my mom. And then the fateful words, the words that would ensure my fatherless future:

“Who wants a piggy back ride?”

Maybe Kristin raised her hand first. Maybe he chose her because she was smaller. Maybe I was too busy with my kicks to care. He hoisted her onto his back. He told me to keep my hands on the rim of the pool, to keep practicing my kicks. Doing this positioned me away from the deep end of the pool. In other words, I could not see what was happening behind me, and with the noise I was making kicking, I couldn’t hear it either.

How much time went by before I turned around? It is hard to say. I remember thinking “It has been a long time. It is my turn now.” At that point, they were already dead. The drowning don’t always get to flail around and scream for help. Drowning is quick and often silent.

Kristin was floating by the side of the pool, probably around the 5’4 mark (which would turn out to be my adult height). Thick mucous was spilling out of her nose. Her skin was cold and tinted light blue. I pulled her out and started screaming her name, screaming for her to wake up. Even if I had been strong enough, I couldn’t have pulled my father out because he had sunk. His 5’8, slender, adult male body lay on the bottom of the pool like a sunken ship.

I knew that I had to find help, but when I got to the gate, it was locked from the outside. I needed the key to open it, but I didn’t know where the key was. So I channeled the super-human strength you read about in articles where petite women lift trucks off of their babies, and I scaled that gate in my underwear.

I ran through the apartment community knocking on doors but bolting quickly if I did not get an immediate response. I didn’t know that a wheelchair-bound elderly woman whose apartment bordered the pool had already called the police. I came to the apartment of someone I knew. A young man. My father’s neighbor. The police report indicates that I said, “My daddy is at the bottom of the pool and he won’t get up.” Sirens were already audible in the distance.

I ran with this young man to the pool. My father and sister were being taken away by EMTs. I asked one of them if they would be OK. He lied and said, “Yes.” Maybe he was trained to do this. Maybe it was all he could think to say.

How could this happen? How could a grown man drown in a swimming pool? Why didn’t he stay in the shallow end or at least stay near enough to the pool side that he could have hung onto it when he noticed the water starting to dip precipitously? The autopsy did not indicate any kind of physical abnormality, like a sudden aneurysm, that could have impaired his functioning. No doubt he panicked and his ability to function was impaired by the small child he held on his shoulders. Perhaps she squeezed a little too tightly. These questions run through my brain, but the truth is we’ll never know.

People have asked me about survivor’s guilt. Throughout my life, I had a recurring dream, though it subsided once I turned 23 or so. In the dream my mother hands me an inanimate object. Sometimes it is a doll. Sometimes it is a matchbook or a twig or a book. She tells me to get rid of it. Throw it away. I take it to the forest and bury it. Cover it with a rock.

I return to my mother and she says, “Where is your sister?” It is only then that I realize she did not give me a doll, or a twig, or a book, but a real-life child. And that child is gone as a result of my carelessness. Of course, I know that my carelessness had nothing to do with it, that I couldn’t have saved them. But my sub-conscious would not let me stop blaming myself, so the dreams persisted.

My mother remarried. Twice. I have two half-brothers from the first stepfather and a half-sister from my mother’s current husband. She is 17 years old. She describes herself as feeling “haunted” by the sister she never knew. Not ghost story haunted, but haunted nonetheless.

Everyone has in her head a life that could have been, a parallel life, butterfly effect stuff, like in the movie “Sliding Doors” where Gwyneth Paltrow’s entire future is altered by whether or not she makes a train. My father was artistic, but I can barely draw stick figures. I imagine that Kristin would have inherited his artistic talent.

When I was majoring in literature, would she have been at a nearby college, majoring in art? When I lived in New York City, might she have decided to come with me? Would we have been roommates, perhaps worked on a graphic novel together? Or perhaps her existence would have changed the course of my life so completely that everything would have been different, my major, my love life, the cities I’ve chosen to live in.

I’m a teacher now, and I get to witness the often drastic differences between siblings. Kristin would have been two years behind me in school, always hearing from teachers, “I had your sister two years ago.” Then at some point in the middle of the semester, the teacher would say, “You two are so much alike” or “You two are so different.” But with our red hair and fair skin, our relatedness would have been unmistakable. And our parents would have referred to us simply as “The Girls.”